Nailah Ellis has always had the entrepreneurial bug, dreaming of opening her own business as a child and as a young adult. She had a few obstacles standing in her way, however. “I had no product, no talent and no service,” stated Ellis. “I wanted in, I just didn’t know how I was going to get in.”
After one semester at Howard University School of Business in Washington, D.C., Ellis decided to leave school and head back to Detroit.
“I remembered an old family recipe for tea that was passed down from my grandfather who was the master chef for the Marcus Garvey Black Star Line,” said Ellis. “He told my father that the recipe was to be ‘sold and not told.’ I knew that I had found my product.”
After a year of perfecting the recipe, Ellis took her cooler of tea to the first floor of a low-income apartment building in Detroit. She sold out the first day. “I was selling a quart-size bottle for eight dollars,” said Ellis. “For me to sell out in a low-income area, at that price, I knew I could sell out anywhere.”
Six months later, Ellis Island Tropical Tea made its debut at Detroit’s infamous Avalon Bakery in 2008. Soon after, the company that started out of a cooler turned into a thriving distributor and bottling company selling product in Chicago and New York as well as Detroit and other Michigan cities.
In 2014, Ellis Island Tropical Tea celebrated the grand opening of a 4,000-square-foot production facility in Detroit. Ellis is now offering specialty beverage consultant services to other entrepreneurs striving to enter the highly competitive gourmet beverage industry.
Ellis says she’s planning to further expand her operation into a national – maybe even international – brand. “We might branch out,” admitted Ellis, “but our home base will always be in Detroit.”
As a Detroit-based small business owner celebrating success, Ellis sees an abundance of opportunity in the city and believes now is the time to take advantage of the new wave of energy erupting. “There is a ton of vacant space where new business owners can take root,” she said. “We have major chains locating in Detroit because these big companies see the opportunity. Why shouldn’t people within the city also do something to put Detroit back on the map.”